Sunday, April 05, 2020

Diabolique aka Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

Among the most enduringly popular motives for murder, in films as in life, is the desire to remove an impediment to happiness—to get somebody, once and for all, out of the way. In life, of course, the goal of freeing oneself by canceling the existence of another human being is frequently thwarted by the haste and clumsiness of the means, the hot urgency of the killer’s drive overriding his better judgment about the care required to escape detection. His guilt becomes obvious, he gets caught, and that desperately hoped-for happiness flies out the window. Clever murderers—of whom there are, thankfully, many more in fiction and movies than in life—temper their homicidal passion with meticulous calculation, arranging their dark deeds with the tender artifice necessary to make unnatural death look natural. They’re artists, of a sort. And the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect murder or a perfect work of art has never stopped either a murderer or an artist from trying.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s cool, clammy, twisty 1955 thriller Diabolique is an almost perfect movie about a very nearly perfect murder, a film in which the artist’s methods and the killers’ are ideally matched, equal in cunning and in ruthlessness. The screenplay, adapted by Clouzot and three other writers from a novel by the crack French crime-fiction team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, is a fantastically elaborate piece of contrivance, but the scrupulous realism of the direction makes the unnatural tale somehow feel entirely likely. From the opening shot—of a stagnant, scummy pool, which later proves to be both an important element of the plot and an apt metaphor for the film’s unwholesome conception of human nature—the director and his cinematographer, Armand Thirard, place us in a murky, overcast, oppressively drab world, the kind of physical and mental landscape in which nothing ever seems to happen, and anything can.

The three main characters, who work at a boys’ boarding school just outside Paris, are presented initially as weary prisoners of a numbing quotidian routine. The headmistress and headmaster are an unhappy married couple, Christina (Véra Clouzot) and Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse); Christina, who is from a wealthy South American family, supplies the funds, which Michel manages, stingily. Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), the science and math teacher, is a voluptuous blonde with a dubious past and is also, quite openly, Michel’s mistress. Not that M. Delassalle appears to appreciate the two attractive and intelligent women in his life. He abuses both, physically and verbally, and revels in his petty power. He abuses his position at the school, too, doling out disproportionate punishments for his pupils’ most trivial infractions and pinching pennies with unseemly relish: the children are underfed and the staff dines on bad fish and cheap wine, two small, strictly rationed glasses per meal.

Michel Delassalle is, in short, begging to be killed, for the general good; he’s pretty much the Platonic ideal of a deserving murder victim. So it’s really no surprise that his wife and his mistress should become, for this worthy purpose, partners in crime. But because they will be the obvious suspects, their crime has to be uncommonly artful—a meticulously constructed fiction of accidental death. It would probably be unwise, and certainly inconsiderate, to reveal more here. Diabolique is a movie whose effect depends crucially on surprise, on the detonation of exquisitely timed little shocks to the audience’s system, and ultimately on the pleasure of realizing how cleverly you’ve been played. The film even includes an end title sternly warning viewers not to blab about what they’ve just seen (“Don’t be devils!”).

Diabolique was Clouzot’s seventh feature, and it represents, arguably, the peak of his critical and commercial success. The film was extremely popular in France, won the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc, and became a major international hit. Alfred Hitchcock, who had once toyed with the idea of filming the story himself, was an admirer; it’s reported that he screened it for the writers of both Vertigo (1958)—which was, like Diabolique, based on a Boileau-Narcejac novel—and Psycho (1960). André Bazin, the great critic of Cahiers du cinéma, acclaimed it as Clouzot’s “most perfect” film, though he considered it a “minor” achievement compared with the director’s previous picture, The Wages of Fear (1953), an ambitious and excruciatingly suspenseful adventure story about men transporting a truckload of nitroglycerin along some very, very poorly maintained South American roads.

Clouzot had by this point in his strange, sporadic career become known as something of a specialist in the engineering of cinematic tension, a master both of the traditional policier and of less easily classifiable nail-biters like The Wages of Fear. He was not renowned for his personal warmth or for his openness to suggestions on the set; his films were smooth-running, precisely designed machines, and only he, he clearly believed, knew how to build and operate them properly. Clouzot was born in Niort (the very town to which the women of Diabolique lure their victim for the purpose of dispatching him) in 1907, and spent most of the 1930s as a screenwriter because his fragile health made directing too strenuous. Once he recovered his strength, he directed his first film, a suave policier called L’assassin habite au 21, in 1942, and followed it with the remarkable thriller Le corbeau in 1943, a film that got him into trouble with everybody—the Germans, the Vichy government, the Communist-dominated Resistance—and resulted in his being banned from the French film industry for a short period after the war. The movie, which has to do with the effect of a series of poison-pen letters on the life of a small town, is a thinly disguised condemnation of collaboration, but it was financed by the German-run company Continental, and that offended many of his compatriots. (As did the film’s advertising campaign, which characterized this venomous village as a “typical French town.” True or not, Le corbeau’s image of “typical” Frenchness was considered not helpful for wartime morale.)

When Clouzot was allowed to direct again, in 1947, he came out with one of his richest films, the theatrical murder mystery Quai des Orfèvres, in which the thick, sensuous backstage atmosphere and the tangled passions of the flamboyant characters are so beautifully detailed as to make the whodunit plot seem almost irrelevant (though he does also supply, for genre fans, a wonderfully peevish police detective, played by Louis Jouvet). After a couple of less successful projects—an adaptation of l’Abbé Prévost’s classic novel Manon Lescaut, called simply Manon (1949), and the failed comedy Miquette et sa mère (1950)—he returned to suspense with The Wages of Fear, and hit his stride again. With that film and Diabolique, he became, for a time, one of his country’s most celebrated directors. His status gave him the freedom to take a risk: his next movie was the extraordinary documentary Le mystère Picasso (1956), in which the great artist creates dozens of drawings and paintings before our astonished eyes, each brushstroke seeming to take shape directly on the screen. The film was a flop at the box office; it has since been declared a national treasure by the French government.

Clouzot’s position in the French film industry may have seemed an enviable one in the midfifties, but over the next few years, that industry began to change dramatically, and well-established directors found themselves losing their footing, buffeted by relentless gusts of hostility from younger critics and would-be filmmakers. Bazin’s youthful colleagues at Cahiers du cinéma, who included François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, wrote furious diatribes against successful older directors like Clouzot, whom the young Turks saw as cautious, conventional, sclerotic—as obstacles to the development of a vital French cinema. The Cahiers du cinéma critics had a sneering name for the older generation: the Tradition of Quality.

Whether Clouzot belonged in that company or not is debatable. One of Cahiers du cinéma’s beefs with the older generation was its penchant for filming safe, respectable material, such as adaptations of the classics of French literature; Clouzot did that exactly once, with Manon. But it’s true that his filmmaking techniques were relatively traditional and highly controlled, and that he tended to work in genres that afforded some prospect of commercial success. The critics who scourged Clouzot were plotting the revolution that, not long after, became known as the nouvelle vague, and revolutions are messy, as the French, of all people, should know. Some victims are innocent. Not every head that rolls deserves to.

Clouzot’s reputation was collateral damage. Although none of his carefully wrought films (he made only three more, of diminishing interest, after Le mystère Picasso) have much in common with freewheeling nouvelle vague works like Breathless or Shoot the Piano Player (both 1960), he wasn’t a stiff either, and his mordant vision of human iniquity doesn’t suggest an artist who slavishly courted acclaim and respectability. Quai des Orfèvres, with its buzzing profusion of vivid minor characters and its tangy evocation of the theatrical life, at times almost recalls the Jean Renoir of the thirties, and even in the claustrophobic Diabolique, the unusual vigor of the compositions and of the performances helps keep the on-screen action consistently alive, even—though of course it’s an illusion—natural. The schoolboys are marvelously unruly and peculiar; the other teachers (one of them played by Michel Serrault, later famous as the drag queen Albin in La cage aux folles) are hilariously pedantic and passive-aggressive; Signoret, whose every gesture is brusque, irritable, quietly violent, gives a superb portrayal of a dangerously bitter woman. And again Clouzot provides a memorable and unconventional detective, here a sly and deceptively amiable old man played by the wrinkly, slow-moving Charles Vanel. And he manages both the complicated plot and the film’s visual metaphors (water chief among them) with unusual grace: his technique is so sure that it seems, paradoxically, a kind of freedom.

Henri-Georges Clouzot was, at his best, as in Diabolique, a terrific filmmaker. And he was an artist who, in his dedication to his own demons, his pitch-black vision of human nature, fulfilled at least some of the aesthetic criteria laid down by the Cahiers du cinéma critics and nouvelle vague revolutionaries. It’s a shame they felt that they had to get him out of the way. --Criterion

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

Horror movies take place in their own territory. The trick is to get us there. It doesn’t matter whether they start with fantastic premises and gothic settings, or with ordinary neighborhoods and daily experience, because the places and assumptions change when they enter and are redefined as horror territory—by the intrusion of crazy violence, for example, or an awful discovery: that the folks in the next apartment are Satanists or that a maniac made a bloody sandwich on the cutting board while you were out of the kitchen. The rules have changed, and it is dangerous to find out how they have changed and why. It is also difficult. It can be hard to realize that one’s friends are pods or that they have to be dismembered, hard to find the terms of a world that behaves like a slaughterhouse or a dream.

The world can fill up with angular, scary shadows, lurking with little monsters—or it can look the same but be different underneath. Different in a way you can’t define, a perceptible but invisible tonal shift that is the ideal of one kind of horror film, a Peeping Tom or Seventh Victim. (At the opposite extreme, the ideal would be the mostradical, visible, and namable horror, a Godzilla or Blood Feast.) This ideal of unsettling horror was best described by Carl Dreyer:

"Imagine that we are sitting in a very ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. Instantly, the room we are sitting in is completely altered. Everything in it has taken on another look. The light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed and the objects are as we conceive them. This is the effect I wanted to produce in Vampyr (1932)."

In Carnival of Souls (1962), one place is allowed to be blatantly creepy: the amusement park where ghosts rest under the water and rise to dance. The rest of the world appears both normal and somehow wrong, and part of what is wrong about it—and within it, and encompassing it—is the liminal protagonist, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). For she has gone wrong, and the world with her. It may be her subjective world, as in the Cocteau and Bergman films that producer-director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford admired, but it is ours as long as we are in the theater, and it looks too much like the real world outside the theater for comfort.

Call it Orpheus meets An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge—or an episode of The Twilight Zone directed by Ed Wood and Antonioni. After surviving an accident in which she and two girlfriends drove off a bridge into a river, Mary leaves to pursue her career as an organist in another town. Before the accident, nothing about her suggested that she was emotionally cold, had girlfriends (reckless or not), or even that she played the organ. But after the accident, she plays a church organ without religious conviction and dates without desire; she has no libido and is accused of having no “soul.” She feels cut off and doesn’t know why. And to find out the reason is to be destroyed: to synchronize with and, quite literally, meet her fate.

In several of the movie’s best sequences, Mary’s relation with reality shifts or slips, and no one can see or hear her. She’s as out of place in this world as if she were dead—until she touches a magic tree and hears its magic bird (who must have sung as well to David Lynch). In this altered state, the reality she sees is ours. It doesn’t include her.

Unless a character turns on a jukebox, all the music in the film, especially the underscoring, is played on an organ. The organ is the music of Mary’s mind and of the world in which she finds herself: the world as a gap in the way things are. It may be that she imagines her tale in her own terms, with a soundtrack as cold as she is said to be—or that she “really” lives for awhile in a world where the dead intrude. The underscoring and the underwater undead make it likely that what we see and hear is her mindscreen. But the horror film can have it both ways: an alternate world and an imagined one, existing as long as it appears to, because it appears to. Aside from the music, the most artistically daring element of this film—one that defies a central convention of the horror genre—is its flight from romanticism, its concentration not on a foaming monster or on the hammering bosom of a Hammer heroine, but on a cold fish. If she is a magnet for the gothic, there is nothing exciting or sexy about it. The thrills of this carnival are cold ones, bits of death.

Carnival of Souls was shot in three weeks for about $30,000: one week at Saltair, an abandoned amusement park on the Great Salt Lake, and two weeks in Lawrence, Kansas, where the filmmakers—who never had or would make another feature—were based, with an industrial film company called the Centron Corporation. To say the least, it was an independent production and, like many of the best rock ’n’ roll records, a one-shot deal. Its influence on other independent work was huge.

If Mary bears a resemblance to Barbara, the heroine of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and if Romero’s undead sometimes look and move like Harvey’s, that is because Romero was lucky enough to see Carnival of Souls at the right time—when it first came out and all its inventions were fresh—and the right place, a drive-in. (He missed, however, a few minutes of footage, restored when the film was re-released in 1989 and, of course, included in the extended director’s cut on Disc Two.) But the man whose relation with ordinary reality is severed in the French film Life Upside Down (1965) is enough like Mary for one to argue that Carnival of Souls has also had an international influence—appropriate for a film that was inspired as much by Bergman (Wild Strawberries, The Magician) and Cocteau (The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus) as by the cheap, raw, ordinary landscape of America, out of which Harvey, Clifford, and Hilligoss constructed the only landscape where Mary, a projection pursued by reflections, can exist: the indefinable space of the horror film. --Criterion

Friday, April 03, 2020

Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm (Michael Reeves, 1968)

1968 was a watershed year for horror cinema. The urban realm was turned into the skulking ground for occultists in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, while rural Pennsylvania was the site of the zombie terror of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Both changed the cinematic landscape for good, but what of Britain?

In addition to one of Hammer’s best, The Devil Rides Out, in the UK it was also quintessentially the year of Michael Reeves’ third and sadly final feature film. This was Witchfinder General, released just months before his tragic death aged 25.

Sodden with nihilism, it would famously raise the ire of Alan Bennett, who called it “the most persistently sadistic and rotten film I’ve ever seen”. Reeves found in the English landscape a violent and fundamentalist reality where paranoia and misogyny dwelled hand in hand with the pastoral and the idyllic. Fifty years on, Reeves’ film has gained rather than lost its sense of horror, showcasing a stark awareness of the inner violence possible in even the most everyday of places and people.

The film follows Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), the proclaimed witchfinder general, as he travels through East Anglia during the English civil war on the hunt for supposed witches. In each town and village he visits, mass panic is whipped up in order to justify the interrogation, torture and eventual execution of innocent people, mostly women. However, murdering a priest and torturing his daughter, Sara (Hilary Heath), leaves Hopkins on the run from a roundhead, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who seeks revenge for the violence inflicted upon his fiancé and her family.

Released in the UK on 19 May 1968, Witchfinder General is a subversive masterpiece that turns a journeying revenge horror into a genuinely questioning film about the power of belief and the true horrors that lurk in the fields and forests of England.

Witchfinder General’s key innovation is its portrayal of the rural landscape. On the one hand, Reeves and his cameraman John Coquillon portray the countryside with a typical, romantic hue, with the locations in East Anglia (as well some unmarked countryside in Buckinghamshire) both pastoral and beautiful. But this is contrasted with the extreme violence that takes place there. Underneath the pleasant veneer, there is a dark, rumbling reality of violence and the old ways.

Take the opening moments: picture-postcard country scenes, with a soundscape of birdsong and wind rustling through the bushes. But there’s also something unusual: a sound of hammering, only quietly at first but gradually coming to the fore.

In moments, it’s revealed that the hammering is coming from a man slowly putting the finishing touches to a gallows pole on a sunny hillside. We cut to the journey of a woman being dragged through a village by a group of people. Her destination is the hill and the rope hanging from the pole.

There is little in the way of leading for the viewer. The scene is shot simply, with only the breeze on the soundtrack and the cries of the woman lost within them. By the time she is executed, Reeves has made clear that the picturesque and the violent will sit chillingly side by side in this film.

Though set during the English civil war, Witchfinder General is chiefly a film about belief, or at least the harnessing of belief’s power in order to fulfill other terrible needs and desires. If its political message could be boiled down to one idea, it would be that belief can allow and excuse the most alarming of atrocities.

These rural vistas become a zone where the attitudes of the local populace can be whipped up to the point of implicating them in wholesale murder. Hopkins uses their superstitious belief – and the terrain that has amplified its extreme character – to dose out his own sadistic violence.

The violence seems to sustain him, in terms of his power and his own pleasure. He wields irrationality for political power, at a time when there was a deep-seated belief in the occult, which explains in part why so many people stood by and allowed women and men to be killed.

In Witchfinder General, belief doesn’t create Hopkins’ sword, but it most definitely sharpens it. --BFI

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964)

What if the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to overthrow the president of the United States in a military coup that would have dire consequences for American democracy? That's the intriguing premise behind Seven Days in May (1964), another political conspiracy thriller from the director that gave us The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - John Frankenheimer. Based on the popular novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, the film pits President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) against General James M. Scott (Burt Lancaster), a right-wing extremist consumed with patriotic zeal who considers the president's recent disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union an act of treason. Scott's attempts to overthrow the president through the help of other Pentagon officials and his own forces at a secret Air Force base in Texas provides a chilling scenario of the dangers of misplaced power in the military-industrial complex. It was certainly a relevant theme in the early sixties when relations between the U.S. and Russia were tense at best, and it remains a hot topic today.

The Knebel-Bailey novel was purchased for the screen through the joint efforts of Frankenheimer and Kirk Douglas, who agreed to produce and star in the film. However, the director almost backed out of the project when he learned that Douglas was intent on casting Burt Lancaster in the film. Frankenheimer had previously worked with Lancaster on Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and found it to be a frustrating, demoralizing experience. During one heated argument over camera placement, the actor had picked Frankenheimer up off the ground, carried him across the room, and plunked him down, stating emphatically, "That's where the camera goes." Yet, despite major reservations about working with Lancaster again, Frankenheimer was assured by Douglas that there would be no problems on the set; Douglas even agreed to offer Lancaster his choice of roles, a generous gesture he would later regret.

Seven Days in May was shot on location in California, Arizona and selected areas in and around the District of Columbia. President Kennedy was particularly interested in seeing a movie version of the book and, thanks to his support, Frankenheimer was able to secure permission to film a riot sequence in front of the White House. But the filmmakers knew it was futile to ask any Pentagon officials if they could shoot any sequences at their headquarters; they returned to Paramount Studios to film those, except for one scene which was filmed without the Pentagon's knowledge. In Gerald Pratley's book, The Cinema of John Frankenheimer, the director said, "We had the camera in the back of a station wagon with a black cloth over it. Kirk...changed into his Marine Colonel's outfit. He...drove up and parked his car, got out and walked into the Pentagon. Three men saluted him. Three other officers saluted him. They really thought he was a colonel. He walked into the Pentagon. We had two cameras, each with a different lens. He turned right around, walked out, and got back into his car and drove off. This gave us entrance and exit shots. We were gone in about five minutes."

As Douglas had promised, Lancaster didn't create any problems for Frankenheimer during production on Seven Days in May. However, Ava Gardner was another story; she would call the director into her dressing room daily after several drinks to complain about the production, her part, or his favoritism toward other cast members. (She even accused the director of having a homosexual relationship with Kirk Douglas due to their numerous private meetings!) At the same time, some of the actors found Frankenheimer's directing style a little odd. Martin Balsam, in particular, was annoyed at Frankenheimer's habit of firing pistol shots close behind him during critical moments.

In John Frankenheimer: A Conversation with Charles Champlin, the director recalled his experience on Seven Days in May: "We rehearsed for two weeks and shot it in fifty days. The only big problem was that, just as I'd warned him, Douglas realized more and more that the colonel was a lousy part, much inferior to Burt's. One day in his dressing room in his undershorts he launched a tirade at me, including the fact that I did not seem to know a major star when I saw one....On the other hand, Lancaster and I became close friends during the making of Seven Days in May....I think one of the best scenes I ever directed was between Burt and Fredric March in the president's Oval Office, when Lancaster is telling him he has to resign, and March won't....I don't think I ever directed anyone who had the same kind of presence on the screen - and off the screen - as Burt."

As for Kirk Douglas, he certainly had a few things to say about Frankenheimer in his own autobiography, The Ragman's Son: "It's ironic. I arrange this rapprochement between Frankenheimer and Burt, and then the two of them go off, great buddies. In interviews later, Frankenheimer played the role of the great auteur - and I was just some actor working under his tutelage, grateful for his guidance. He twisted the whole thing around."

In his autobiography, Douglas also provided a little-known detail about Seven Days in May. "We also shot an ending that I liked very much, but which we didn't use. General Scott, the treacherous Burt Lancaster character, goes off in his sports car, and dies in a wreck. Was it an accident or suicide? Coming up out of the wreckage over the car radio is President Lyman Jordan's speech about the sanctity of the Constitution. Instead, the last time we see Burt is in his confrontation with me. He regards me as a traitor to him; I know he has been a traitor to the country. He says to me, "Do you know who Judas was?" I answer, "Yes. He's a man I used to work for and respect, until he disgraced the three stars on his uniform."

When Seven Days in May opened theatrically, it fared well with critics and audiences alike. The New York Times reported that it was "taut and exciting melodrama, as loaded as a Hitchcock mystery" and the film also picked up two Academy Award nominations; one for Best Supporting Actor (Edmond O'Brien's colorful turn as a southern senator fond of booze) and one for Best Art and Set Decoration.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Hardware (Richard Stanley, 1990)

Richard Stanley was in Pakistan, and had just watched a man die, when he got a call from London. “It turned out to be a producer named Trix Worrell,” the director recalled. “By the time he found me, he was already desperate. He was using a lot of f-words. ‘You have no f------ idea how hard we’ve been working to f------ find you, mate!’ I hung up on him.” 

Stanley, a director of pop videos for Public Image Ltd and Renegade Soundwave, was at a Red Crescent field hospital in the city of Peshawar, 31 miles from the border with Afghanistan. He’d fled there directly from the Battle of Jalalabad, a standoff between the Pakistan- and US-backed Mujahideen and the Afghan army. Some 15,000 people had died there during a savage battle marked by numerous atrocities against civilians.

And people were still dying. All around Stanley lay amputees bleeding out, and burn victims losing their fight for life. Stanley and his cameraman, Immo Horn, had been among the fortunate ones. They’d taken fire from Afghan forces at point-blank range, only to stagger away unharmed. Stanley likened their escape to the Pulp Fiction scene in which John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson’s characters face a hail of bullets – and yet survive. (Horn had, however, been wounded by shrapnel, hence their hospital trip.) 

And now this: an executive from London-based Palace Pictures, desperate for Stanley to come back to Britain. Having joined the Mujahideen in frustration at his moribund movie career and with the vague intention of making a documentary, the South African filmmaker had seen death at first hand. The last thing he’d expected was his old life to come crashing through the walls. He had no idea how to react.

“Trix had tracked me down,” Stanley told the Without Your Head podcast in 2017. “They wanted to option my script. The Hardware script had been floating around London like a raisin dropped in a glass of champagne. 

“Without me knowing, it had gone from one set of hands to another and had found its way to Steve Woolley at Palace Pictures… I was so confused, I didn’t take it seriously for a period of time.”

But, against the odds, Hardware was about to get made. In an even more unlikely twist, it would become a surprise money-spinner for Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax, thanks to the company having a relationship with Woolley that led them to distribute such Palace hits as The Crying Game and Scandal. Hardware would also serve as an acting showcase for two of rock’s craggiest icons: Iggy Pop and Lemmy (of Motörhead). 

And it would represent the opening chapter of Stanley’s unconventional career as a feature director. He subsequently made the 1992 cult chiller Dust Devil before things went spectacularly awry in 1995 after he was given the job of directing the disruptive duo of Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer in The Island of Doctor Moreau. (After just three days on set, he was fired by fax.) Recently Stanley has achieved another milestone, as his adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s Colour Out of Space opens in cinemas. 

All this, however, was in the future. As Stanley put down the phone in Pakistan, he wondered if he wasn’t dreaming. In subsequent months, that suspicion would never entirely dissipate. Halfway through the Hardware shoot, which took place at the Roundhouse in Camden, Horn turned to his director and suggested that they must have died back in Jalalabad, making everything since a grand hallucination. Stanley wasn’t sure he disagreed. 

“It did feel a little uncanny,” he told Screen Anarchy in 2009, “as if… we weren’t really on set but in Hell all along. And that the folks surrounding us weren’t really our friends, colleagues and loved ones, but demons sent to devour us.”

“No one had really heard of post-traumatic stress disorder at the time, but I guess it helped give Hardware a certain edge, an authentic stench of trauma. Hardware is what we had instead of therapy.”

On its release in October 1990, Hardware would be hailed as a pulp masterpiece. The story is stunning in its simplicity. In a far-future Earth ravaged by global warming, a scavenger (Fields of the Nephilim frontman Carl McCoy) discovers a buried robot. He sells it to an ex-soldier, who passes it on to his sculptor girlfriend. 

Unbeknownst to all, the MARK-13 is an experimental combat droid capable of self-repair – and programmed to dismember on sight. Soon it’s chasing heroine Jill (Stacey Travis), boyfriend Moses (Dylan McDermott) and sundry other characters around a dystopian apartment complex, armed with a chainsaw, rending claws and a deadly toxin. Stanley, not-so-subtly, also flags a Bible verse – Mark 13:20 – “No flesh shall be spared”.

Stanley had intended for the film to be set in a future-shock Britain, but under pressure from Weinstein and Miramax, he agreed to a transatlantic casting. Hence Travis, a Texan, shares the screen with British actors such as Mark Northover and Paul McKenzie. 

“I didn’t believe the movie would get made,” Stanley later revealed. “They used extraordinary means to get me back from Afghanistan. They chartered my immediate ex-girlfriend to bring me home. I [went] directly from the Afghan conflict to developing Hardware.” 

Stanley had used his music industry contacts to convince Iggy Pop to play the part of DJ “Angry Bob” (who never appears on screen). And he talked Debbie Harry of Blondie into portraying a cab driver plying the flooded byways of his future city. Unfortunately, she dropped out to go on tour. So the director went to the nearest pub, on Chalk Farm Road in Camden, in search of a replacement. There he found Motörhead’s Lemmy: “He agreed to do it in exchange for a bottle of Jack Daniels.”

“You like to be in a movie,” Lemmy later said in a behind-the-scenes feature about the making of Hardware. “But you don’t realise how boring it is to be in one. It’s bloody boring, acting in a movie. It’s standing around really.” 

“It was shot in London in the middle of winter,” Stanley added. “The weather was like a hurricane at times. It was all made more difficult by the fact Lemmy wasn’t following his script [and was] ad-libbing all the dialogue.”

Palace had stumbled on Stanley’s script after it decided to make a straight-to-video horror in the vein of Evil Dead, and the distribution deal with Miramax had raised the stakes. The budget of $800,000 (£626,000), however, was still puny considering the many special-effects shots required.

Stanley’s solution was to hire a crew made up of eager newcomers. These included 15-year-old Chris Cunningham, later to become famous directing videos for Björk, Aphex Twin and others. “He was already a genius,” Stanley remembered. “There were a lot of young people. All too young. None of them [were] paid enough.” 

Back then, the Roundhouse was essentially a dilapidated shed, full of junk and detritus. But it was cheap: it cost less to film there for a week than it cost to hire a soundstage at Pinewood for a day. The director was able to scrimp further by shooting through the night. He used two crews, the first working with the actors until 6.30pm, then the second coming in and filming the FX sequences. Stanley was on set throughout: “We were able to run 24 hours, which meant that I didn’t get much sleep.” 

Hardware was hailed as an instant splatter classic, and Miramax took the extraordinary step of putting this mere B-picture in 700 screens across America. It duly opened at number six in the box office, going on to gross $70 million. 

But its success was double-edged. It landed Stanley with a lawsuit from 2000AD, which accused Hardware of lifting the robot-repairs-itself storyline from its 1980 strip SHOK! Fleetwood Comics went to court; subsequent releases of Hardware were required to include a credit acknowledging 2000AD as the source material. 

Stanley’s gonzo adventures in the B-movie business were just beginning. He would go through further hell filming his next picture, Dust Devil, on location in Namibia. In the end, he was locked out of the editing room by the financiers. That was followed by The Island of Doctor Moreau, a $40-million disaster. Stanley was fired after three days of running battles with Kilmer, who had turned up at the tropical Queensland set in a sulk after discovering that his wife, Joanne Whalley, was divorcing him. 

Stanley would, though, bounce back with Colour Out of Space. After condemning him to 24 years on a director’s desert island, Hollywood has suddenly embraced this maverick again. He’s already looking forward to his next project, an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. 

Yet for many, Hardware will always be his masterpiece. It’s weird and rough-hewn; it has a robot with a chainsaw and Lemmy from Motörhead driving an apocalyptic taxi. What else is required? 

As Stanley says of the shoot: “I was actually in pretty murky psychological shape at the time. I had been fished out of the war in Afghanistan and put straight into pre-production. They were strange experiences to have back-to-back. I guess a lot of that spills over into the movie and the way it looks.” 

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Bullet for the General aka El Chucho Quién Sabe? (Damiano Damiani, 1966)

In revolutionary Mexico a group of bandits, led by a man called El Chuncho, attack a government munitions train. Things go not as planned, but the bandits get some unexpected help from one of the passengers, a well-dressed American called Tate, who subsequently joins the gang. He is baptized "Niño" because of his juvenile features by El Chuncho and the two men quickly become friends (and maybe more). When the American falls ill and El Chuncho starts searching his luggage, he discovers a golden bullet, but keeps suppressing the idea that Niño is a traitor. The bandits have planned to sell the stolen weapons to revolutionary leader General Elias, and when they arrive in the general's headquarter, it becomes clear why Niño has joined them ...

A Bullet for the General is a groundbreaking movie, the first real Zapata western, and according to some also the best. It was co-written by Franco Solinas, who had also scripted Gillo Pontecorvo's award winning La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers/1966 - Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, 1967). Solinas would also be involved in the writing of two other political westerns The Big Gundown and Tepepa, while one of his writings (based on a play by Bertold Brecht) would be the starting point for Corbucci's Zapata western The Mercenary. It has been suggested that Solinas only saw this movie as preparatory study to Queimada (Burn!/1969, starring Marlon Brando), but he had great interest in Mexico and Pancho Villa's people's revolution. Furthermore he was present on the set most of the time, discussing characters and parts of the dialogue with the director and the actors, making adjustments when necessary. Two other people are listed as co-authors, but according to several people involved in the project, the movie was written by Solinas, Solinas and Solinas.

A Bullet for the General is usually interpreted as an allegory about US involvement in South-American politics. In 1966 there was no evidence of any illegal CIA activities, but there were plenty of rumors and it's hard to read the movie differently. Like most 'committed' screenwriters from the 60's, Solinas was a Marxist. Unlike the more impulsive Corbucci, he was a theorist, well-versed in Marxist philosophies, and this is inevitably reflected in his narratives and characterizations. In true dialectical style, Solinas' characters learn from confrontations with others who are at the same time their equals and direct counterparts. El Chuncho and his half-brother, the priest El Sancho, both serve the revolution, but while El Chuncho is an opportunist, his half-brother takes his revolutionary activities as serious as his banditry: when asked (by a fellow priest) how he can live with those bandits, he answers that Christ was crucified between two bandits and has always sided with the poor. Little by little, El Chuncho learns what a people's revolution is about, and when he is confronted with the information that the people of San Miguel have been massacred after they were abandoned by him, he is overcome by remorse and sentences himself to death.

Corbucci often defined his westerns as proletarian fables about the rich exploiting the poor. In A Bullet for the General things are a bit more complicated. The town boss Don Felipe is presented as a gentle person who has never committed any great acts of cruelty, but - in the words of the local revolutionary leader Raimundo - he has done nothing to improve the situation of the poor. This is closer to Sartre than to Marx: in existentialist philosophy a man is only free when he uses his freedom to take a stance: if he doesn't stand up against injustice, he confirms it, which is an act of injustice in itself. Tate is a hired gun who kills without any remorse, but he's able to feel friendship and what turns him into a villain, is the fact that he seems to lack any sense of the collective, which is, in Marxist views, a mortal sin: he saves El Chuncho because El Chuncho is his friend, but he thwarts the people's revolution because the people's cause is beyond his conception of life. He has saved EL Chuncho, but El Chuncho must execute him. Who knows why? The answer is: the anonymous mass he has betrayed, those poor people who have no voice know why.

Art that is committed to a certain 'cause' (be it Marxist or anything else) easily falls into predictable patterns. Solinas' writings (and this film in particular) aren't entirely safeguarded against these liabilities, but in spite of his dogmatism, he was an inventive and resourceful screenwriter. A Bullet for the General is provocative, intellectually challenging, but also offers first-rate entertainment. The people's revolution is hailed but the revolutionaries are not romanticized, let alone glorified: the people aren't even capable of electing a new town boss without help, and the revolutionaries execute and slaughter simple soldiers in a murderous frenzy.

A Bullet for the General most certainly influenced Corbucci and Sollima, to mention only the most prominent Italian directors of political westerns. According to Alex Cox it also influenced Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Whether this is the best Zapata western in history or not, may be a matter of personal taste. I still prefer some of Corbucci's efforts in this direction. Solinas was a better screenwriter than Corbucci, but compared to Damiani, Corbucci was the more skillful director. Damiani's direction is adequate, but lacks Corbucci's ironic touches and dynamic force, notably during the large-scale action scenes. The film has a great look, thanks to the work of art director Sergio Canevari, costume designer Marilu Carteny and cinematographer Toni Secchi. For once we really get the feeling we're in Mexico. Even 'faces in the crowd' look Mexican. Performances are spot-on. Neither Volonté nor Castel is a personal favorite of mine, but they are both perfectly cast as the talkative bandit and the taciturn stranger. The Freudian overtones are so strong that it's hard to overlook the homosexual symbolism of the relationship. Kinski is a true attraction as the priest who kills without mercy but demands respect for the dead. Bacalov's score is excellent. --SWDB

Fong Sai-yuk aka The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk (Corey Yuen, 1993)

This 1993 Corey Yuen-directed Jet Li flick ranks way up there on the list of great Hong Kong Cinema experiences. It's about legendary hero Fong Sai-Yuk, who was a member of the Red Flower Society, a secret society who desired to take back the country from the Manchu-run Ching Dynasty. As portrayed by Li, Fong is a happy-go-lucky kung-fu expert who spends his time fooling around with his buddies. By strange happenstance, he gets involved with Ting Ting (Michelle Reis), the daughter of the new Manchu governor (Chan Chung-Yung).

However, Fong really doesn't just get involved with Ting Ting. Circumstances are much more involved and screwball-comedy complex. He wins a kung-fu contest to determine Ting Ting's future husband, but he doesn't realize that Ting Ting is the girl whose hand he's won. Even more, his supermom (Josephine Siao) dresses up like a man to try to bail out her son, and ends up winning the affections of Fong's new mother-in-law (Sibelle Hu). Plus, the new governor doesn't know that Fong's dad (Paul Chu) is a high-ranking Red Flower Society officer. And last but not least, the supreme government baddie (future Wong Fei-Hong Zhao Wen-Zhou) arrives to act mean and terrorize everyone in sight. I've said it before and I'll say it again: hijinks ensue.

What makes Fong Sai-Yuk such an incredible delight is the overabundance of eager-to-please yet very agreeable comedy and action sequences. The comedy is typically Hong Kong, meaning lots of minor shtick, gender confusion and mistaken identity silliness. Still, unlike usual comedymeister Wong Jing, Corey Yuen manages to make the comedy pleasing and unobtrusive. The action is in another entire class. Fong Sai-Yuk is loaded with intricately choreographed classic set pieces, including a famous fight atop the heads of a crowd, and a showdown between Wong Fei-Hongs Jet Li and Zhao Wen-Zhou. Even the drama manages to work.

To assign negatives to Fong Sai-Yuk would seem like ungrateful nitpicking. The film is a rarity: a popcorn crowd-pleaser that elicits so many different cinematic emotions that calling it exhilarating would be an understatement. In a perfect world they would still make Hong Kong movies like this.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Malatesta's Carnival of Blood (Christopher Speeth, 1973)

Malatesta's Carnival Of Blood is one of those low-budget nightmare oddities which came about from time-to-time in that era between Night Of The Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which changed the horror landscape forever. It is roughly in the same company as Carnival Of Souls (1962) or Messiah Of Evil (also 1973), with which it shares a distaff post-hippie vibe.Wedging itself between expressionist narrative film (paying homage to silent classics like The Phantom Of The Opera and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame) and ambient happening/freakout (tape loops and upside-down VW Bugs and mylar and 'improvised ghoul action'), this is an excellent late-night ramble. Filmed at an already run-down amusement park (Six Gun Territory, formerly Willow Grove Park, which I have learned was one of the most successful amusement parks in the United States from the Late 19th Century to roughly the 1950's, meeting its demise in 1975 to make way for the Willow Grove Park Mall in Willow Grove Pennsylvania), Malatesta's Carnival Of Blood is an offering to and an encapsulation of an unretrievable past, of older-school horrors, nocturnal vibes and a playful counterculture nearly buried by shock and anomie. --Letterboxd

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004)

Friday, March 27, 2020

Green Snake (Tsui Hark, 1993)

Tsui Hark merges the punk outrage of his early films with the lavish, effects-driven wuxia of his later, much more financially successful works in this pointed denunciation of the hypocrisies both sexual and racial of China's religious traditions, the backward superstitional blindness of Taoism and the calcification of Buddhism into a rules-based organizational structure that has forgotten the most basic rule of all major religions and moral philosophies: "Be excellent to each other."

Based on an oft-told story of two snakes who over 500+ years master enough kung fu that they're able to transform into humans, Tsui shifts focus from the usual hero of the story, the White Snake (played by Joey Wang) who falls in love with a hapless but decent young scholar, to her younger sister the Green Snake (Maggie Cheung), who is much more suspicious of the benefits of becoming human in the first place. As the White Snake's tragic fairy tale plays itself out in self-sacrifice and honor and all those things myths tell us are important, the Green Snake sees only the lies and corruptions of the self-righteous and ultimately decides she'd rather be a snake.

The villain of the film is a super-powerful Buddhist monk who has made it his mission to keep non-humans and humans separate. Whether the non-humans are enlightened or not, whether they are moral or not, makes no difference. His xenophobia is pure. Similarly, his belief system demands that he totally repress any sexual desires he may have. The Green Snake challenges him on this and succeeds in turning him on. Surely any god would understand, seeing as she's Maggie Cheung, of course. But rather than accept his defeat with humility, he lashes out in anger and refuses to uphold his end of their wager. He then kidnaps the scholar, forcing the young man into what can only be described as a Buddhist re-education camp (shades of the Cultural Revolution here), where he is literally rendered insensate by the mindless chanting of the monks (it's a kind of spell where, deep in meditation, the monks' ability to see, hear and speak is removed).

Eventually there is a final battle in which the snakes, in self-protection, unleash a violent flood. The monk lifts the mountain holding his monastery above the waters, destroying the nearby town and killing hundreds of people. Out of a mad desire for doctrinal purity, he tries to rise above the flood of emotion and worldly desire, only to cause mass destruction. I couldn't help but be reminded of The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh's documentary about the Khmer Rouge that was one of my favorite films at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. The Khmer Rouge, like the Cultural Revolution, were human catastrophes on a massive, almost unimaginable scale, driven by the desire for ideological purity above all else. In a hyperkinetic fantasy film driven by Maggie Cheung and Joey Wang playing sexy snake/humans, Tsui presents much the same critique. But he seems to have mellowed a bit from the nihilistic explosiveness of the Hong Kong New Wave from 15 years earlier (best exemplified in his third film, and one of his greatest, Dangerous Encounters - First Kind). Rather than seeing the world as hopelessly corrupted and in need of burning down (the way the monk sees normal humans in the films remarkable opening sequence: ugly, deformed, lower beings), Green Snake offers the possibility that we might someday become decent enough for her to return. All we need to do is learn to prioritize basic human decency over the dictates of the arbitrary rules and regulations of our organizing institutions and ideologies. --Sean Gilman, The End of Cinema

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Warning Shadows aka Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (Arthur Robison, 1923)

The cinema, more than any other art form, works by exploiting our often-shaky grasp on what is real and what is not real. Everything we see on the screen is at once itself – an object or face that has been photographed – and an illusory shadow of itself, which will vanish like some ghostly apparition the moment we switch on the lights. Cinema fascinates because we know what we are seeing is unreal, yet feel unable at the same time to deny its existence. As we once believed in ghosts or demons or angels and sought to commune with them in a myriad of ways, we now sit in thrall to alluring but ephemeral shadows on a cinema screen.

The German Expressionists of the 1920s had a more complex and tortuous love of shadows than any before or since. A shadow to them was more than a place on which the light did not fall; it was the secret and invisible space in which the true drama invariably played out. The actors, the costumes, the décor … all these made up the conscious ego of a film. The shadows were its dark and Freudian id. Lotte Eisner compared the Expressionists less to Freud than to Tieck, one of the more eccentric of the German Romantic authors. She wrote that:

"The rhyme of Schein (seeming) with Sein (being) […] leads them, like Tieck, to “juggle with reality and dreams until the forms born of the darkness seem the only genuine ones.” Life is merely a kind of concave mirror projecting inconsistent figures which vacillate like the images of a magic lantern, sharp-focused when they are small and blurring as they grow."

Just about every German Expressionist film plays out this concept to a greater or lesser extent. The one that most directly sums it up, however, is Arthur Robison’s Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (Warning Shadows, 1923).

The original title translates as “Shadows – A Nocturnal Hallucination”. There is nothing grandiose or gratuitous about this: the collective ‘hallucination’ experienced by the characters is not just a commentary on – or a distraction from – the main narrative; it is the very form and substance of the narrative itself. Nothing that actually happens in the film is of real or lasting importance. Yet the fantasies that assault them in their artificially created dream world are brutal, decisive and life-changing.

It takes place in the early 19th century, at a dull party in the home of an unhappy married couple. All four guests are male; each harbours a none-too-secret desire to sleep with the wife. A wandering illusionist entertains them with his ombres chinoises. He seems a world away from the magus or evil-genius figures seen in films by Robert Wiene, F W Murnau or Fritz Lang. He is no more than a mountebank, a cheap huckster who seeks to kill a few hours in exchange for a few coins. Yet by placing the characters under hypnosis, he lets them play out – in a realm of dreams – the passions they keep hidden within their subconscious selves. “In a state of trance,” writes Siegfried Kracauer, “they anticipate the future by doing exactly what they would do if their passions continued to determine their actions.”

As in a Freudian case history, the narrative splits into schizophrenic polarities of eros and thanatos, Sex and Death. The husband (Fritz Kortner) feels such a purely voyeuristic passion for his wife that he is unable (we strongly suspect) to consummate their marriage. Spying through curtains as she flirts innocently with her admirers, he sees their shadows merge in a tableau of group sex that is almost indescribably obscene. As she dances after dinner, the illusionist holds up a blazing candelabrum so her legs appear naked through her white muslin gown. Later, as they watch the play, the illusionist shines his light on her hand as the youngest of her suitors reaches out to touch it. In reality, their two hands do not make contact. Yet their shadows, cast on the floor, form the shape of an act of coitus in graphic close-up.

In the second half, these shadow-images of Sex give way inevitably to shadow-images of Death. The husband sees – again, through curtains – his wife’s shadow as she makes love to the younger man. In a homicidal rage, he has his footmen seize his wife and tie her to the dining table. The act is barely visible, concealed by the mise en scène like those acts of carnage that happen offstage in a Classical Greek tragedy. Yet it is magnified to lurid proportions by the shadows the actors cast on the wall. In a perverse tableau like something out of the work of Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, the husband compels his other guests to skewer his wife with long rapiers. This act evokes both an ‘honour killing’ and a gang rape. Again – mercifully, this time – we see nothing of the act. It transpires exclusively through shadows, the realm where the truth of the story lies.

Not that the shadow play in Warning Shadows ever shows what happens. It shows only what may happen if the subconscious drives of its characters are allowed to run unchecked. “Used by the magician for ultimately benevolent ends,” writes Thomas Elsaesser, “it ostensibly allows the characters to confront themselves, attain a degree of self-knowledge about their fears and obsessions, jealousies and murderous rages.” Graphic but illusory images of Sex and Death turn out to be harmless, even salutary. Yet a decade after Warning Shadows was made, the shadows in the German psyche sprang horribly – and all too realistically – to life. --Senses of Cinema